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A new approach to performance management

The findings of a review of the existing literature, data from the State of the Service Report (SOSR) 2011-12, agency consultations and cross-case comparisons have been brought together to generate a new performance management framework. The framework comprises four principles and practices for high performance and three foundation elements (Figure 1; see Annex 3, Annex 4, Annex 5, Annex 6, Annex 7, Annex 8 and Annex 9). It will form the basis of a Diagnostic currently being developed; this will be designed to assist organisations to assess their current practices and to move towards a high performance approach (see Annex 10).

2.1 Research findings

Research findings, drawn from the variety of sources outlined above, led to two areas for consideration: the role of performance management within the APS and the aspects required for performance management to support the development of high performance. The principles and recommendations outlined in this report integrate these ideas into a framework for future practice.

2.1.1 Role of performance management

The empirical findings demonstrated that effective performance management must have a clear purpose and be meaningful to employees. Research participants viewed performance management within the APS as a mechanism for:

  • aligning employees to organisational requirements;
  • clearly articulating and managing expectations;
  • clearly establishing role and goal clarity;
  • identifying the support required to enable goal attainment;
  • discussing future career aspirations;
  • identifying developmental needs;
  • monitoring and reviewing performance;
  • ensuring that standards of performance align with expectations; and
  • recognising good performance.

Managers recognised that performance management could enable organisational goals to be clearly communicated across all hierarchical levels of APS agencies. For this to be achieved, however, the importance of people management as a core management activity required increased recognition and support. Performance management was often viewed as a compliance exercise, or shorthand for managing underperformance, and this often resulted in a degree of cynicism and a reluctance to engage in this process among supervisors and employees alike. In contrast, the framework outlined in this paper outlines a system that promotes high performance through: the development of clear definitions of high performance; a focus on performance improvement; the prevention of underperformance; and the active management of performance issues.

The research in APS agencies found that the implementation of performance management was uneven. While there were numerous examples of effective implementation, there were also many examples of where managers lacked the time and/or the skills necessary to establish employee goals and provide constructive feedback on employee performance and behaviours. This highlights the need for further development of managers’ capabilities and skills in communicating performance expectations, providing feedback and evaluating performance outcomes. For many participants, reconfiguring the system was not considered a priority; making current performance management systems more effective through improved implementation and support for managers and employees was viewed as more valuable.

2.1.2 Aspects required for performance management to support the development of high performance

Our findings point to seven areas of focus which are important for the successful attainment of high performance through any performance management system.

Theme 1 – Clarity and purpose

  • A shared understanding of high performance within and across organisations.
  • Clear purpose, objectives and goals are required at the organisational, group and individual levels, enabling the effective management of expectations.
  • The purpose of performance management must be clear; it must be seen as meaningful and worthwhile.

Theme 2 – Alignment and integration

  • A clear line of sight between high-level and individual goals is necessary for high performance.
  • Rigorous recruitment processes to ensure effective job-person fit, leading to higher levels of performance.
  • Utilising the probation process more effectively to permit organisations to evaluate job-person fit and enable managers to anticipate and address performance issues earlier.
  • A clear focus upon the development needs of individuals with regards to task, behaviours and organisational capability requirements.
  • Utilisation of a range of reward and recognition practices that encourage good performance, in particular rewards that include praise, peer recognition, and increased developmental opportunities.

Theme 3 – Mutuality and motivation

  • Managers and employees are mutually accountable for employee performance, with particular emphasis on mutual ownership of performance management.
  • Regular conversations between managers and employees, and the provision of timely and constructive feedback beyond the formal requirements of the performance management system.

Theme 4 – Adaptability and progress

  • A focus on performance improvement at the organisational, group and individual levels.
  • Organisations, groups and individuals anticipate, adapt and respond to change.
  • Performance agreements are responsive to changing circumstances, enabling the maintenance of a clear line of sight between the achievement of organisational goals and the performance expectations placed on individual employees.

Theme 5 – Evidence and data

  • The collection and reporting of useful performance data such as outcomes, quality and information metrics for use in decision-making.
  • Consistency in how performance is defined and in how performance ratings are allocated. This occurs through increased discussions among managers and employees about what high performance represents and what performance standards and behaviours are expected of employees for each level of the performance rating scale.

Theme 6 – Pragmatism

  • To enable organisations to meet their future goals through more effective use of performance management systems, they need to be able to identify what is, and is not, possible given their current state and build upon their strengths.
  • To encourage high performance, agreements need to be tailored to individual employees and their specific contexts.

Theme 7 - Capabilities

  • Organisations identifying what capabilities and competencies are required at all four levels – governance, organisational, group and individual - to achieve longer term goals and objectives.
  • Human resource management support is a critical competence in terms of advice, support and system design.
  • A focus on improving managerial competencies in people management in general, and performance management in particular.
  • Managers are provided with the knowledge and support to enable them to address performance concerns at an early stage. They also have adequate support to recognise and reward evidence of high performance. This support enables the development of individual competencies to support the new approach.
  • Performance management is considered a priority and a core managerial activity.
  • Ongoing discussions between managers and employees who have the capabilities to undertake this effectively.

Findings from this project complement those from the recent Capability Reviews undertaken in the APS. It is of note that there was evidence of good practice in all agencies. In some areas of the APS, individuals are engaging in active and ongoing performance management that addresses many of the issues raised in the research. However, this was largely based on the actions and motivations of individual employees and managers rather than widespread practice. The challenge is to learn from good practice and to translate these lessons into a systematic approach which becomes ‘business as usual’ but remains flexible to different contexts and requirements – at no point is a ‘one size fits all’ solution advocated.

2.1.3 A performance management framework for the Australian Public Service

The seven aspects were classified into two distinct categories: either a principle or a foundation element. A principle is a design element of any performance management system; it will influence application and implementation of a system in terms of how the content of performance management agreements is developed. A foundation element is a necessary condition for high performance which acts as a part of the organisational support structure underpinning the implementation process.

Figure 1: Principles for high performing government